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Over-financialisation – the Casino Metaphor

Over-financialisation – the Casino Metaphor.

The casino metaphor has been widely used as a part-description of the phenomenon of over-financialisation. It’s a handy pejorative tag but can it give us any real insights? This article pursues the metaphor to extremes so that we can file & forget/get back to the football or possibly graduate to next level thinking.

What is the Financialised Economy (FE) and how big is it?

The FE can be loosely described as ‘making money out of money’ as opposed to making money out of something; or ‘profiting without producing’ [1]. Its primacy derives largely from two sources – the ability of the commercial banks to create credit out of thin air and then lend it and charge and retain interest; and their ability to direct the first use of capital created in this fashion to friends of the casino as opposed to investing it in real economy (RE) businesses. So the FE has the ability to create money and direct where it is used. Given those powers it is perhaps unsurprising that it chooses to feed itself before it feeds the RE. The FE’s key legitimate roles – in insurance and banking services – have morphed into a self-serving parasite. The tail is wagging the dog.

The FE’s power over the allocation of capital has been re-exposed, for those who were perhaps unaware of it, as we see the massive liquidity injected by the central banks via QE disappearing into the depths of bank balance sheets and inflated asset values leaving mid/small RE businesses gasping for liquidity.

By giving preferential access to any capital allocated to the RE to its big business buddies the FE enables those companies to take out better run smaller competitors via leveraged buy outs. By ‘investing’ in regulators and politicians via revolving doors and backhanders, it captures the legislative process and effectively writes its own rule book.

Five years after the 2008 crisis hit, as carefully catalogued by FinanceWatch [2], economies are more financialised than ever. If the politicians and regulators ever had any balls they have been amputated by the casino managers, under the anaesthesis of perceived self-interest. They have become the casino eunuchs. An apparent early consensus on the systemic problems of over financialisation has melted away into a misconceived search for ‘business as usual’.

Derivatives

Derivatives are one of the most popular games in the casino.

Over the counter derivatives, which are essentially bets on the performance of asset prices, stocks, indices or interest rates, have a nominal value (as of December 2012 [2]) of USD 632 trillion – 6% up from 2007 levels – and 9 times world GDP. If the world decided to stop living and buy back derivatives instead of food, energy, shelter and all the stuff we currently consume, it would take nine years to spend this amount.

OK – it’s a nominal value. Many observers believe (even hope) that its real value is a minute fraction of this, but the only way we will ever find out is if the derivative contracts unwind. That is, prompted presumably by some form of crisis, parties progressively withdraw from the contracts or fold. The regulators (and the FE itself of course) will do everything they can to prevent this from happening, including grinding the population into the dust via austerity, because while no-one knows who precisely holds the unwound risk, most will certainly belong to the FE’s top tier.

Many of these derivatives started life as sensible financial products. Businesses need to insure against an uncertain harvest, or hedge against uncertain currency movements. But only a small proportion of current holders now have an insurable risk. So whereas in the past you could say we insured against our own house burning down, now they bet on their neighbour’s house burning; whereas in the past we bet on our own life expectancy, they now bet on the deaths of others; whereas in the past we insured against currency losses we experienced in our own business transactions, now they bet on currency movements in general. What might be expected when there are incentives to burn your neighbour’s house down? Organisations have even purposely set up junk asset classes, had them AAA rated, sold them to outsiders and then bet on their failure.

Government & Politicians

Politics operates as a debating society in a rented corner of the casino. The rent is high but largely invisible to the populace. The debaters are themselves well off, at least in the U.S. they are [3].

Now the strange thing is that the government actually owns the casino, but they have forgotten this. For the last 40 years or so, they have asked the casino managers to issue all the chips. The government use the same chips to spend on public services, and require us all to pay taxes in those chips. Mostly they don’t have enough chips for all the services they provide, so they ask the casino managers for loans. The casino managers are happy with this, provided the government pay interest on the loan of chips. This hidden subsidy effectively funds the casino. It’s perverse because the government pays interest on money they could issue themselves debt-free.

It’s not entirely clear why the government thinks the casino managers are better at managing chips than they would be. Arguably the government is elected to carry out a programme and they should be the arbiters of the country’s strategic priorities, so there should be some strategic guidance over the way the chips are spent.

But the government is only here for five years, and the casino managers are here permanently. So perhaps they think it’s safer just to trust the casino managers to get on with it. When asked, the casino managers explain that they allocate chips according to ‘what the market needs’ and no-one quite understands why that doesn’t seem to include much real investment. In any case the government have forgotten that they could issue the chips themselves, and although prompted (e.g. [4]), have failed to show any interest in reclaiming that power. Occasionally they create a whole new batch of chips themselves (QE) – if they think the tables are quiet – but give them straight back to the casino managers. Maybe it’s too complicated for politicians. Many of them haven’t had proper jobs. There are a few civil servants who understand what’s happening, but most of them don’t want to rock the boat – they are here permanently too and have good pensions. They research for the debaters and have lunch with the casino managers. That keeps them quite busy enough, thank you.

The Real Economy

The Real Economy also operates from a corner of the casino. It’s hard to put an exact figure on it, but perhaps 3-5% of the overall floor space depending how you measure.

It’s a very important corner of the casino, but not for the reasons it should be. It should be important because it’s the place where food is grown, houses are built, energy for warmth and work is created and so on. But these precious things are taken for granted by the casino managers. They have always had enough chips to buy whatever they need – they issue them for God’s sake – and they think food, shelter and energy will always be available to them. Crucially though, they have also managed to financialise this remaining RE corner, and this ‘support’ is trotted out as a continuing justification for the FE’s central importance .

The RE corner has always included important social and cultural, non-GDP activities. The enormous real value of these activities is now being properly articulated and is spawning citizen-led initiatives (e.g. sharing economy approaches, basic unconditional income) but they are often presented as beggars who annoyingly keep petitioning for their ‘entitlements’ and generally clutter up this remote corner of the casino.

On the finance side, individuals and businesses are exploring ways of funding their future activity without going cap-in-hand to the casino managers. They are exploring peer-to-peer finance, crowdfunding, prepayment instruments and so on. What these initiatives have in common is the disintermediation of the casino. They provide ways for people to invest more directly and take more control over their savings and investments. Of course a new breed of intermediary is surfacing to broker and risk-insure these new models, and these new intermediaries can also be captured.

With transparency and short-circuit communication via social media though, there is definitely scope to do things differently. We must hope for progress because the casino managers have little interest in what’s going on outside.

The Planet – outside the casino

The planet outside is used by the casino in two ways – as a source of materials and as a dumping ground for waste.

The materials are not essential to the core FE which is all about making money out of money and needs nothing but ideas, a few arcane mathematical models to give spurious gravitas, and credulous or naive investors. But RE activity performs a valuable role for the casino managers – it provides them with an endless stream of innovative ways of using chips. The shale gas bonanza for example is apparently grounded in the real world need for energy, and is presented as such. Its significance to the FE is as another bubble based partly at least on land-lease ‘flipping’ [5].

Without an RE-related rationale/narrative, the FE might disappear up its own waste pipe as it re-invested/sliced-and-diced/marketised its own products to itself. So materials from outside the casino are important for the managers’ big corporate proxies in the RE.

FE-favoured RE activities also create lots of waste, some of which is toxic, and may eventually prove terminal, as it builds up. This fact is of little interest to the casino managers. There is a minor interest in waste-related financialised vehicles – carbon markets for example are a relatively new casino game – and in the slight impact on some of the FE’s RE-friends like big energy companies. But mostly the casino managers are too busy with their games and their chips. Occasionally a manager will wake up to the dangers and defect to the real world where they, somewhat perversely, carry more credibility because of their casino experience. A small minority of managers stay within the casino and try to gently modify its behaviour. This is portrayed as a healthy sign of openness; the casino is secure in the knowledge that their ways cannot easily be re-engineered.

Combating the casino’s influence

Essentially there would appear to be three possible lines of response for those who believe there should be more to life than casino capitalism. Marginalise, convert or destroy……

These approaches map on to the three ‘broad strategies of emancipatory transformation’ suggested by sociologist Erik Olin Wright [6] – interstitial, symbiotic and ruptural. I have a fourth suggestion/ variation of which more in a moment.

The challenge for interstitial initiatives is the sheer pervasiveness of the FE. There are few spaces left where the effects of the FE can be ignored. They may not be well understood, but whenever we pursue dreams, they pop up in front of us, usually as obstacles. Developments that are most heavily attacked by the FE establishment perhaps merit the most attention – community scale renewable energy, crypto currencies, co-ops, the sharing economy, and so on. The more these alternative directions are attacked as utopian or uneconomic the more we can be sure they offer promising interstitial opportunities.

Symbiotic opportunities may represent the triumph of hope over experience. Armed with the power of ideas, we back our ability to persuade policy makers and business leaders to change the game. The main challenges here are the arrogance of the powerful and the danger of being captured by supping with the devil. Vested interests generally feel secure enough that they don’t need to negotiate or even to spend brain power on listening and evaluating alternatives. If enough interest is manifested that symbiotic trial projects are begun, their champions can be captured by being made comfortable.

Ruptural alternatives come in a spectrum from those that would destroy business models to those that would destroy societies. They probably share the above analysis but differ in their degree of radicalism and disconnection from the main. The impact of FE-driven globalisation is beyond the scope of this article, save to note that its effects have unnecessarily radicalised whole populations making more measured responses more difficult to promote than they might have been.

The role of the internet and social media in progressing both interstitial and ruptural initiatives is significant. Most of the space to develop and assemble communities of interest and mission-partners is here, explaining why both are likely to experience increasingly determined attempts to capture.

The nature of one’s chosen response will be a matter of personal choice. We should not be judgemental of those who don’t have the will, energy or resourcefulness to play a more active role. We all suffer from our subservience to a dysfunctional system, some much more than others. The fourth response? Perhaps there’s some mileage in judo principles [7].

References

[1]: http://rikowski.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/profiting-without-producing-how-finance-exploits-u s-all/
[2]: http://www.finance-watch.org/
[3]: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-25691066
[4]: http://www.positivemoney.org/
[5]: “It seems fairly clear at this time that the land is the play, and not the gas. The extremely high prices for land in all of these plays has produced a commodity market more attractive than the natural gas produced.” Art Berman quoted athttp://theautomaticearth.blogspot.ie/2011/07/july-8-2011-get-ready-for-north.html
[6]: http://realutopias.org/
[7]: http://judoinfo.com/unbalance.htm

Featured image: Luxor, Las Vegas. Author: David Marshall jr. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=90604

What Blows Up First? Part 1: Europe

What Blows Up First? Part 1: Europe.

2013 was a year in which lots of imbalances built up but none blew up. The US and Japan continued to monetize their debt, in the process cheapening the dollar and sending the yen to five-year lows versus the euro. China allowed its debt to soar with only the hint of a (quickly-addressed) credit crunch at year-end. The big banks got even bigger, while reporting record profits and paying record fines for the crimes that produced those profits. And asset markets ranging from equities to high-end real estate to rare art took off into the stratosphere.

Virtually all of this felt great for the participants and led many to conclude that the world’s problems were being solved. Instead, 2014 is likely to be a year in which at least some – and maybe all – of the above trends hit a wall. It’s hard to know which will hit first, but a pretty good bet is that the strong euro (the flip side of a weakening dollar and yen) sends mismanaged countries like France and Italy back into crisis. So let’s start there.

The basic premise of the currency war theme is that when a country takes on too much debt it eventually realizes that the only way out of its dilemma is to cheapen its currency to gain a trade advantage and make its debts less burdensome. This works for a while but since the cheap-currency benefits come at the expense of trading partners, the latter eventually retaliate with inflation of their own, putting the first country back in its original box.

In 2013 the US and especially Japan cheapened their currencies versus the euro, which was supported by the European Central Bank’s relative reluctance to monetize the eurozone’s debt. The following chart shows the euro over the past six months:

Euro dec 2013

For more details:

Euro rises to more than 2-year high vs. dollar; yen falls 
The euro jumped to its strongest level against the dollar in more than two years on Friday as banks adjusted positions for the year end, while the yen hit five-year lows for a second straight session.

The dollar was broadly weaker against European currencies, including sterling and the Swiss franc. Thin liquidity likely helped exaggerate market moves.

The European Central Bank will take a snapshot of the capital positions of the region’s banks at the end of 2013 for an asset-quality review (AQR) next year to work out which of them will need fresh funds. The upcoming review has created some demand for euros to help shore up banks’ balance sheets, traders said.

“There’s a lot of attention on the AQR, and there’s some positioning ahead of the end of the calendar year,” said John Hardy, FX strategist at Danske Bank in Copenhagen.

Comments from Jens Weidmann, the Bundesbank chief and a member of the European Central Bank Governing Council, also helped the euro. He warned that although the euro zone’s current low interest rate is justified, weak inflation does not give a license for “arbitrary monetary easing.

The euro rose as high as $1.3892, according to Reuters data, the highest since October 2011. It was last up 0.3 percent at $1.3738.

The currency has risen more than 10 cents from a low hit in July below $1.28, as the euro zone economy came out of a recession triggered by its debt crisis.

Unlike the U.S. and Japanese central banks, the European Central Bank has not been actively expanding its balance sheet, giving an additional boost to the euro.

Here’s what a stronger euro means for France, the second-largest and arguably worst-managed eurozone country:

French Economy Contracts 0.1% In Third Quarter
The final estimate of France’s gross domestic product, or GDP, in the third quarter remained unchanged at the previous estimation of a contraction of 0.1 percent, indicating that the euro zone’s second-largest economy is struggling to sustain the rebound it witnessed in the second quarter with a growth of 0.6 percent.

The third-quarter GDP growth was in line with analysts’ estimates. According to data released on Tuesday by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, the deficit in foreign-trade balance contributed (-0.6 points) to the contraction in the third quarter, compared to the positive (0.1 percent) contribution made in the preceding quarter.

Some thoughts
At the beginning of 2013, most of the eurozone was either still in recession or just barely climbing out. Then the euro started rising, making European products more expensive and therefore harder to sell, which depressed those countries’ export sectors and made debts more burdensome. So now, under the forced austerity of an appreciating currency, countries like France that were barely growing are back in contraction. And countries likeGreece that were flat on their back are now flirting with dissolution.

Recessions – especially never-ending recessions – are fatal for incumbent politicians, so pressure is building for a European version of Japan’s “Abenomics,” in which the European Central Bank is bullied into setting explicit inflation targets and monetizing as much debt as necessary to get there. The question is, will it happen before the downward momentum spawns political chaos that spreads to the rest of the world. See Italian President Warns of Violent Unrest in 2014.

China Bond Yields Soar To 9 Year Highs As It Launches Crackdown On “Off Balance Sheet” Credit | Zero Hedge

China Bond Yields Soar To 9 Year Highs As It Launches Crackdown On “Off Balance Sheet” Credit | Zero Hedge.

As we showed very vividly yesterday, while the world is comfortably distracted with mundane questions of whether the Fed will taper this, the BOJ will untaper that, or if the ECB will finally rebel against an “oppressive” German regime where math and logic still matter, the real story – with $3.5 trillion in asset (and debt) creation per year, is China. China, however, is increasingly aware that in the grand scheme of things, its credit spigot is the marginal driver of global liquidity, which is great of the rest of the world, but with an epic accumulation of bad debt and NPLs, all the downside is left for China while the upside is shared with the world, and especially the NY, London, and SF housing markets. Which is why it was not surprising to learn that China has drafted rules banning banks from evading lending limits by structuring loans to other financial institutions so that they can be recorded as asset sales,Bloomberg reports.

Specifically, China appears to be targeting that little-discussed elsewhere component of finance, shadow banking. Per Bloomberg, the regulations drawn up by the China Banking Regulatory Commission impose restrictions on lenders’ interbank business by banning borrowers from using resale or repurchase agreements to move assets off their balance sheets. Banks would also be required to take provisions on such assets while the transactions are in effect. Ironically, it may be that soon China will be more advanced in recognizing the various exposures of shadow banking than the US, which is still wallowing under FAS 140 which allows banks to book a repo as both an asset and a liability.

Recall from a Matt King footnote in his seminal “Are the Brokers Broken?”

Quite apart from the fact that FAS 140 contradicts itself (with paragraph 15 (d) making borrowed versus pledged transactions off balance sheet, and paragraph 94 making them on balance sheet, a topic complained about by many broker-dealers immediately after its issue), there seems to be little consensus as to who is the borrower and who is the lender. As far as we can tell, terms like ‘borrower’ and ‘lender’ are used in exactly the opposite sense in the accounting regulations relative to standard market practice. The description above follows common market practice. The accounting documents seem to refer to this the other way around, a source of confusion commented upon in some of the accounting literature

So while in the US one may be a borrower or a lender at the same time courtesy of lax regulatory shadow banking definition (depending on how much the FASB has been bribed by the highest bidder), in China things will very soon become far more distinct:

The rules would add to measures this year tightening oversight of lending, such as limits on investments by wealth management products and an audit of local government debt, on concerns that bad loans will mount. The deputy head of the Communist Party’s main finance and economic policy body warned last week that one or two small banks may fail next year because of their reliance on short-term interbank borrowing.

“China’s banks and regulators are playing this cat-and-mouse game in which the banks constantly come up with new gimmicks to bypass regulations,” Wendy Tang, a Shanghai-based analyst at Northeast Securities Co., said by phone. “The CBRC has no choice but to impose bans on their interbank business, which in recent years has become a high-leverage financing tool and may at some point threaten financial stability.”

Cutting all the fluff aside, what China is doing is effectively cracking down on the the wild and unchecked repo market, and specifically re-re-rehypothecation, which allows one bank to reuse the same ‘asset’ countless times, and allow it to appear in numerous balance sheets.

The proposed rules target a practice where one bank buys an asset from another and sells it back at a higher price after an agreed period.

The reason why China is suddenly concerned about shadow banking is that it has exploded as a source of funding in recent years:

Mid-sized Chinese banks got 23 percent of their funding and capital from the interbank market at the end of 2012, compared with 9 percent for the largest state-owned banks, Moody’s Investors Service said in June. The ratings company forecast a further increase in non-performing loans as weaker borrowers find it hard to refinance.

And while we are confident Chinese financial geniuses will find ways to bypass this attempt to curb breakneck credit expansion in due course, in the meantime, Chinese liquidity conditions are certain to get far tighter.

This is precisely the WSJ reported overnight, when it observed that yields on Chinese government debt have soared to their highest levels in nearly nine years amid Beijing’s relentless drive to tighten the monetary spigots in the world’s second-largest economy. “The higher yields on government debt have pushed up borrowing costs broadly, creating obstacles for companies and government agencies looking to tap bond markets. Several Chinese development banks, which have mandates to encourage growth through targeted investments, have had to either scale back borrowing plans or postpone bond sales.”

This should not come as a surprise in the aftermath of the recent spotlight on China’s biggest tabboo topic of all: the soaring bad debt, which is the weakest link in the entire, $25 trillion Chinese financial system (by bank assets). So while the Fed endlessly dithers about whether to taper, or not to taper, China is very quietly moving to do just that. Only the market has finally noticed:

The slowing pace of bond sales from earlier in the year is reviving worries of reduced credit and soaring funding costs that were sparked in June, when China’s debt markets were rattled by a cash crunch.

The rise in borrowing costs and shrinking access to credit could undercut the recent uptick in China’s economy that global investors in stock, commodity and currency markets have cheered. Wobbly growth in China could undermine economic recovery in the rest of the world.

“If borrowing costs don’t fall in time, whether the real economy could bear the burden is a big question,” said Wendy Chen, an economist at Nomura Securities.

Chinese bond yields are rising amid a lack of demand among the big banks, pension funds and other institutional money managers, analysts say. These investors, traditionally the heavyweights in China’s bond market, have seen their funding costs rise in tandem with interbank lending rates, which are controlled by China’s central bank. The country’s bond market is largely closed to foreign investors.

The yield on China’s benchmark 10-year government bond was at 4.65% Monday, down from 4.71% Friday. Last Wednesday’s 4.72% was the highest since January 2005, according to data providers WIND Info and Thomson Reuters. The record is 4.88% set in November 2004. Bond yields and prices move in opposite directions.

“The recent sharp rise in bond yields was mostly due to worsening funding conditions and growing expectations for a tighter monetary policy as Beijing seeks to deleverage the economy,” said Duan Jihua, deputy general manager at Guohai Securities.

As government-bond yields have risen, the average yield on debt issued by China’s highest-rated companies rose to 6.21% as of Friday—the highest since 2006, when WIND Info began compiling the data.

In conclusion, it goes without saying that should China suddenly be hit with the double whammy of regulatory tightening in both shadow and traditional funding liquidity conduits, that things for the world’s biggest and fastest creator of excess liquidity are going to turn much worse. We showed as much yesterday:

If the Chinese liquidity spigot – which makes the Fed’s and BOJ’s QE both pale by comparison – is indeed turned off, however briefly, then quietly look for the exit doors.

 

Unfractional Repo Banking: When Leverage Is “Limited” By Infinity | Zero Hedge

Unfractional Repo Banking: When Leverage Is “Limited” By Infinity | Zero Hedge.

Today’s release of the 2013 edition of the Global Shadow Banking Monitoring Report by the Financial Stability Board doesn’t contain anything that frequent readers of this site don’t know already on a topic we have covered since 2009. It does however have a notable sidebar which explains the magic of “(un)fractional repo banking” – a topic made popular in late 2011 following the collapse of MF Global – when it was revealed that as part of the Primary Dealer’s operating model, a core part of the business was participating in UK-based repo chains in which the collateral could be recycled effectively without limit and without a haircut, affording Jon Corzine’s organization virtually unlimited leverage starting with a tiny initial margin.

Naturally, any product that can allow participants infinite leverage is something that all “sophisticated” market participants not only know about, but abuse on a regular basis. The fact that this “unfractional repo banking” is at the heart of the unregulated $71.2 trillion shadow banking system, the less the general public knows about it the better.

Which is why we were happy that the FSB was kind enough to explain in two short paragraphs and one even simpler chart,just how the aggregate leverage for the participants in even the simplest repo chain promptly becomes exponential, far above the “sum of the parts”, and approaches infinity in virtually no time.

From the FSB:

As a simple illustration of the way in which repo transactions can combine to produce adverse effects on the system that can be larger than the sum of their parts, suppose that investor A borrows cash for a short period of time from investor B and posts securities as collateral. Investor A could use some of that cash to purchase additional securities, post those as further collateral with investor B to receive more cash, and so on multiple times. The result of this series of ‘leveraging transactions’ is thatinvestor A ends up posting more collateral in total with investor B than they initially owned outright. Consequently, small changes in the value of those securities have a larger effect on the resilience of both counterparties. In turn, investor B could undertake a similar series of financing transactions with investor C, re-using the collateral it has taken from investor A, and so on.

 

Exhibit A2-5 mechanically traces out the aggregate leverage that can arise in this example.Even with relatively conservative assumptions, some configurations of repo transactions boost aggregate leverage alongside the stock of money-like liabilities and interconnectedness in ways that might materially increase systemic risk. For example, even with a relatively high collateral haircut of 10%, a three-investor chain can achieve a leverage multiplier of roughly 2-4, which is in the same ball park as the financial leverage of the hedge fund sector globally. It is therefore imperative from a risk assessment perspective that adequate data are available. Trade repositories, as proposed by FSB Workstream 5, could be very helpful in this regard.

 

So… three participants result in 4x leverage; four: in roughly 6x, and so on. Of course, these are conservative estimates: in the real, collateral-strapped world, the amount of collateral reuse, and thus the number of participants is orders of magnitude higher. Which means that after just a few turns of rehypothecation, leverage approaches infinity. Needless to say, with infinite leverage, even the tiniest decline in asset values would result in a full wipe out of one collateral chain member, which then spreads like contagion, and destroys everyone else who has reused that particular collateral.

All of this, incidentally, explains why down days are now prohibited. Because with every risk increase, there is an additional turn of collateral re-use, and even more participants for whom the Mutual Assured Destruction of complete obliteration should the weakest link implode, becomes all too real.

That, in a nutshell, are the mechanics. As to the common sense implications of having an unregulated funding market which explicitly allows infinite leverage, we doubt we have to explain those to the non-Econ PhD readers out there.

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Good Luck Unwinding That | Zero Hedge

Good Luck Unwinding That | Zero Hedge.

 

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